“The child is father of the man” is the seventh of the nine lines of the poem “My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth, written in 1802, when the poet was 32 years old. It is a line that has intrigued poets, philosophers and psychologists. I had never bothered about it, till a recent visit to Goa, where I spent a glorious week with my granddaughter Myra, who is all of 20 months of age.
It was a learning experience for me, not for her; after which I cannot but endorse the words of the poet that are worth more than their weight in gold. As a marriage counsellor I have long taught that the grandchildren are the joy and fulfilment of the grandparents. Though Myra spent two months with us when she was born, and my wife and I had gone to celebrate her first birthday 8 months ago, it was only now that I really experienced the joy of my grandchild. Perhaps she is now at that age when she is beginning to understand things and recognize people.
Myra has three favourite expressions – Oh wow, Oh God and Nice. What a wonderful combination; to express the wonder of one’s being, to turn to God in time of need, and to appreciate life and people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could look at life with the eyes of a child? There were three other qualities that I observed in her – prolonged eye contact, the leap of trust, and a gregarious nature. I would not take for granted that these are normal child like traits, because parenting has become a burden for many, and children, at an early age, are exposed to traumatic experiences that rob them of the innocence of childhood.
First the eye contact. Jesus himself said, “The lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye is clear, your whole body will be filled with light” (Mat 6:22). Most of us adults are afraid of eye contact. We have become shifty, so we cover our eyes with the veil of deceit or the wall of fear. Not so the innocent child.
This brings me to the leap of trust. Several times I found the child jumping into my arms even though I was not yet ready for her. She was completely trusting, assured that my arms would be outstretched to catch her, lest she fall or get hurt. We adults would call that a leap of faith, or a leap in the dark. It doesn’t come easy, because we have already been jilted or jolted in various ways on the path of life. But the child was a living testimony to one of my favourite texts from John, “In love there is no fear, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear implies punishment, and whoever is afraid has not come to perfection in love” (1Jn 4:18).
Many years ago I had heard a story attributed to a Jewish businessman (I do not wish to be anti-Semitic). He exhorted his young son to jump from the roof and he would catch him as he fell. Trusting his father, the child jumped, but the father did not catch him. The fall hurt the child. His father then said to him, “Son this is your first lesson in life – don’t trust anyone”! How horrible life would be if we were to follow that father’s advice and child’s experience.
The third quality that I had noticed in Myra was her gregarious nature. She would go to anybody and make friends. She was not afraid, so she could interact with others. Seeing her trusting and open behaviour I am led to agree with Wordsworth, that indeed the child is the father of the man; for there is so much that we can learn from little children.
A discerning reader may have noticed that the title of this piece ends with a full stop, and not a line of dots that indicate continuity of the sentence. The full stop conveys a sense of finality. That’s it. Were I to say – A Child Is … good, innocent, trusting, or use other adjectives, I would be diluting the totality of what I am trying to convey.
I find a similar powerful example in Exodus. When Moses first comes face to face with God in the burning bush on Mt Horeb, he asks him his name. God replies “I am he who is” (Ex 3:14). This definition has been interpreted as Yahweh, which is just the Hebrew verb “to be”. God was obviously speaking in first person. In third person Moses would simply have had to say “God is” (full stop). Any further definition that God Is … love, truth, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent etc would detract from the totality of the term “God Is”. It is for this reason that I chose to restrict the title of this piece to “The Child Is” (full stop).
Yet, we humans are not ethereal beings; hence crave deft or daft definitions of God. How much more then would we need to describe the word “Child”? Interestingly the word child/ children occurs 178 times in the New Testament. The Child of Bethlehem, when he came to be known as the Son of Man, did not forget his own childhood experiences and often incorporated them into his teachings.
The most telling statement is “Jesus called a child, made him stand in front of them and said – I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. The greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this little child” (Mat 18:3-4). He reiterates, “Let the children come to me and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mat 19:14).
Jesus’ listeners would have sensed his earthiness, and his filial relationship with his mother Mary. This is why one woman called out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that suckled you” (Lk 11:27). The Old Testament also has some poignant texts that portray this delicate relationship. “You will be like a child that is nursed by its mother, carried in her arms, and treated with love. I will comfort you in Jerusalem, as a mother comforts her child” (Is 66:12).
The psalmist says, “It was you who brought me safely through birth, and when I was a baby, you kept me safe” (Ps 22:9). And again “As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my heart is quiet within me” (Ps 131:2). For those who do not fulfil this primary obligation we hear it said “Even a mother wolf will nurse her cubs, but my people are like ostriches, cruel to their young. They let their babies die of hunger and thirst” (Lam 4:3-4). However, for those who fulfil their parental duties there is the hope that “Creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).
Wordsworth would have to amend his poem to read, “The woman is the mother of the child, and subsequently, the child is the father of the man”. I will end this piece with the poet’s own concluding lines: “And I would wish my days to be, Bound each to each by natural piety”.
If we follow the order of the natural, then we will also understand the spiritual or supernatural that Jesus so eloquently spoke of. Thank you Myra, for teaching me this important lesson in life. If God Is, then so too, the Child Is.
(* The writer has years of experience in youth and family ministry.)